Monday, September 26, 2005

But What About That Pail?

My first time at Back to School night I was excited, energized, curious to meet the teacher who would help to mold the mind of my budding young genius. I came plenty early and first thing in the door I signed up for PTA, plopped down my five dollars with a smile and took my seat in the crowded auditorium. Five hours later after a bitter debate and line-item veto involving cookie dough money, t-shirt sales and an electronic scrolling light sign at the entrance to the parking lot I woke up to realize that Back to School night is that pound of flesh exacted from parents as payment for a public school education.

But most of the parents at Northern Lights take their Back to School night pretty seriously. At last year’s meeting I headed for Spencer’s second grade class and I sat at his tiny desk with my knees up to my chest listening to his sweet, enthusiastic teacher drone on and on and on and on. Homework, spelling, tests, library books, pencils, shoe laces, snacks, peanuts, chewing gum, paper v. plastic, the upcoming elections, global warming, market trends, forgiving foreign debts, space exploration, the European Union . . I’m afraid that about that time I fell asleep with my last conscious thought being wonder at how my poor child would make it through it the year. Lucky for him (and me) he was on the back row.

I did wake up (having your knees up to your chest can be helpful if you wish to sleep sitting up) and I looked to the next desk over. There sat a father who looked to be, if I were to hazard a guess, a banker or CPA. He was sitting on a tiny tan plastic chair and along with his pink-clad, perfectly-coiffed wife, crammed into the space at his daughter’s desk, a space that would make a milk crate feel roomy.

In his Italian, gray three-piece suit, his knees were bent and crunched up so high he could hardly reach over them to get to the desk, his silk tie hanging down between his legs. The desk’s surface was hidden by his leather-bound folder containing a yellow lined pad and with his monogrammed fountain pen he was half-way down the page taking
furious notes.

I did a double take. What could he possibly have been writing? It wasn’t like there was going to be a quiz at the end or anything—or did I miss that part while I was asleep? Which parts was he worried about remembering? I was tempted to lean over and whisper, “Dude, can I copy your notes for the test?” but I didn’t think he’d find it amusing, Northern Lights parents take things a bit seriously.

On the front row of the class was a woman who asked question after question about class requirements and homework assignments, you'd have thought her child was working on his thesis. How was her child to write her name on her assignments, when was homework due, when were tests, what happened if she had to sneeze in class—

After an hour and fifteen minutes I escaped and thought I’d got away with it until I was caught in the hall without a pass and was given study hall for the next week.

This year’s experience went much smoother but with three classes to visit I couldn’t get around to all the classrooms and I made a judicious decision to skip Mrs. Murray’s class. Grace had Mrs. Murray for third grade and now it’s Spencer’s turn.

I’ve already established that Northern Lights is an intense school, with parents who get worked into a lather at the mere mention of “National Merit Finalist.” Mrs. Murray found out early on that she’s dealing with a family not quite on the same intellectual scale as the rest of them.

Grace had brought home a crossword puzzle for homework, one that had pictures that were supposed to represent various plural and singular nouns. She was to guess what the nouns were and fill in the word on the crossword. Grace was stumped on the last three, spinning her wheels for an hour past bedtime, so in a rare change from my strict “I Don’t Do/Proofread/Correct Your Homework” Policy I took pity on her and looked at the puzzle.

The first clue was a boy in a Peter Pan costume with tights and pointy shoes, the next had three girls in various ethnic costumes (kimonos, etc.), and the last picture was two children, a boy and a girl in knickers an a pinafore who looked like Jack and Jill, with a pail in their hands. I looked at the three pictures, trying to find words for them that would fit into the puzzle.

I’m thinking, “Peter Pan? Boy? Fairy?” Followed by “Geishas? Dolls? Dresses?” and “Jack and Jill? Water? Mother Goose?” And the ultimate question, “Why are they carrying the pail?” I couldn’t for the life of me make anything fit. I sat there working it through in my mind, analyzing all the clues, reaching deeper and deeper through years of literary criticism, through Campbell, Jung, Freud, anyone I could find to de-construct each icon and came up empty. I had nothing. And lest you think I’m the only idiot, Andrew didn’t have any better luck. Thirty-seven years of combined schooling between us and we were stumped. Not a clue.

After a painful amount of time I gave up and told Grace she was doomed and she’d have to get help from her teacher. I’m thinking, “There can’t be any kids in the class who got this, so it probably won’t even count.”

The next day Grace came home in high emotion, pulled out the puzzle and said, “Mrs. Murray says that she’s given out this homework paper for three years and has never had anyone have trouble with it.”

My response was, “Come, on, you’re telling me that all the other kids in the class got the answers?” Grace shook her head, tears flowing freely by now. Evidently Peter Pan was a “child,” the kimono-ladies were “women,” and the Jack and Jill were “children.” Sounds simple yet I ask again, What about that pail? And why was he wearing tights and fairy shoes?” That just seems wrong. In that brief period of disappointment the childhood ideals she had held of her parents were shattered forever.

And what about Mrs. Murray? Well she of course thinks we’re all idiots over here so I’m just dying to run into her again at another parent-teacher conference. I’m just hoping she’ll look beyond all the history to help Spencer rise above his genetic limitations and make something of himself—something that doesn’t involve crosswords.


Anonymous said...

Once again, you are a bright spot in my day and week. Thanks for your devotion to my grandchildren and my son. Love Mom M